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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 2 October 2008
(Detail of ) Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer,1971
(Detail of ) Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer, 1971
Master of forbidden, malevolent territory

No smiles in sight at this exhibition of the works of Francis Bacon, the greatest painter of the 20th century, writes Gerald Isaaman

WE live in tough, corrupt, coruscating times.
So perhaps the last place you might want to be is Tate Britain where, appropriately, the bottom galleries are devoted to Francis Bacon. And those touring the rooms look as grim as his distorted, tortured subjects hanging – and that too is appropriate – on the walls.
There’s no smile in sight, just silent sadness, even sickness as Bacon’s big, soulless portraits devour you like animal fodder, leaving you devastated, both by their brutal impact and their ability to expose his victims’ vulnerability.
Indeed, the Irish painter, who died in Madrid in 1992, aged 82, and whose works now command millions, once declared: “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” And he told a journalist: “I would paint your vulnerability.”
This exhibition reviews his gutter life chronologically – much in his beloved Soho, with some 70 major paintings – and shows how photographic images, of the body and of conflict in particular, played an essential role in how he looked on life.
His portraits are undoubtedly not as instantaneous as he often suggested, but deeply structured and thought out examples of how he virtually trapped his subject in cage-like frames where they could be torn apart.
Simple lines like prison bars and steel shutters pervade so much of his work, making his subjects powerless in some forbidden, malevolent territory, their passion and beliefs engulfed by Bacon’s own insistence that, without God, humans are subject to the same urges of violence, lust and screaming fear as any other animal.
Worse still, his work is unrelenting – he was, after all, an atheist – as he tackles now well-known subjects like Pope Innocent X, the Crucifixion and paintings inspired by Velazquez and Van Gogh. Even his memorial portraits of his dead lover George Dyer, often his model, fail to show a glimmer of either affection or hope.
Insecurity rules the day. No doubt it did in Bacon’s own life. His wit could be devastating; his insistence on drinking only the best champagne and vintage wine the result of his belief that the finest never created a hangover; and his desire for sex dominating his utterly scornful, devil-may-care attitude to everything around him.
While his studio was in West Kensington, Soho was his haunt and playground, the Colony Room and French House the background for his mischief, which so mesmerised his circle. “When I first knew Soho,” he said, “the prostitutes were all over the streets. The streets were more fun, more amusing. The prostitutes gave a living sense to the streets.”
And he was fatalistic to the end, making his final trip to Madrid in search of “the Spanish boy” despite medical advice not to do so. “We are born and we die and there’s nothing else,” he insisted when interviewed by Melvyn Bragg. “We’re just part of animal life.”
Not true, of course, in the sense that we can control our animal urges and use our talents to reflect life in art, in all its magical beauty, as well as the terrible turbulence Bacon depicts.
That is true difference, Bacon undoubtedly shattering civilised life and reducing us to dread and, maybe, truthful tears.
Certainly Bacon can be considered vulgar, cynical, theatrical too. He had, as well, a touch of the flamboyant showman who wishes to tease and tantalise. So did Turner, who would turn up at the Royal Academy on varnishing day to add an unexpected dash of red paint to a landscape, which his mean critics crushed as rubbish but which endured and ended up an admired masterpiece.
Bacon is considered today’s Turner, our greatest painter of the 20th century, drastically confined in content though he was compared to Turner. Do go and judge for yourself before meltdown overtakes us.

• Francis Bacon, Tate Britain, SW1, until January 4.

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